Monday, June 25, 2012

Seattle - Pioneer Square

Having learned all about the history of Pioneer Square on the Underground Walking Tour, it was interesting to walk around the current day incarnation and compare it with how it used to be.  The impetus for creating the walking tour as a way to promote awareness of and preserve heritage buildings arose when the once elegant flatiron shaped Grand Seattle Hotel was torn down and replaced with the concrete "Sinking Ship Parking Lot".  To prevent further losses, the entire Pioneer Square area was designated a historic district through the lobbying efforts of Bill Speidel.   As a result, the stunning Pioneer Building and Pergola (a Parisian-esque shelter where commuters used to wait for the trolley to go by) still stand today looking very much like they did in old photos.

Thanks to preservation efforts, many beautiful historic buildings remain in Pioneer Square with their red brick and grey stone facades, original signs and marquees and mosaic floor tilings still intact.  One building still has a neon sign that reads "State Hotel - Rooms 75 cents".  If only it were true!

The Grand Central Arcade (formerly the Squire-Latimer Building) contains two levels of shops on the ground floor and basement (which used to be the ground floor of the original town of Seattle before it was re-graded as described in the Underground Walking Tour).  One of the major occupants is the Grand Central Baking Company.   The seating area in front of the bakery is breathtaking with its high ceilings, floor to ceiling arched glass windows, large chandeliers, large wooden tables and a working fireplace with two armchairs that are the highly coveted spots.  We had a delicious shrimp salad sandwich and mushroom soup that were perfect for a cold wet day, but were not fortunate enough to snag the fireside seating.

The Smith Tower was one of the tallest buildings in the world (at 42 storeys) when it was completed in 1914.  Named for typewriter tycoon Lyman Smith (of Smith and Wesson typewriters), its facade is made of white terracotta while the lobbies are marble and onyx with brass trimmings on the operator-manned elevators.  Along with an observation deck, there is a "Chinese room" on the 35th floor containing a chair gifted by the Empress of China.  The legend is that any woman who sits on the chair will be married for a year.   We were told on our tour that the top pyramid of the Smith Tower is currently rented to an artist and a ladder can be used to climb to the pinnacle.

The Artic Building used to a men's club in 1916 and prominently features gorgeously ornate columns each highlighted by the head and tusk of a walrus.  Today, it is a luxury hotel called the Arctic Club Seattle.

Because major "chain" stores are banned from Pioneer Square, it continues to be populated by charming smaller establishments (Toronto, take note!).  Globe Books specializes in older books including the Cherry Ames series about a WWII nurse who solved mysteries - a precursor to Nancy Drew.  There were also Dover Thrift Edition paperbacks which specialize in titles and authors that are public domain and sell for an average price of $1 to $2.50.  Rich picked up a couple of books of short stories and the book "The Thirty-nine Steps"on which one of our favourite Alfred Hitchcock movies is based.

A store called UtiliKilts sells kilts with pockets for tools.  A sales clerk came out modelling one and we were tempted to ask him if he was going regimental.  A gift shop called Fireworks had a book called "Porn for Women" with glossy photos of hot men who love to shop, go to craft shows and vacuum.  The quirkest shop though was one called Shotgun Ceremonies that offered quicky Vegas-styled marriages.  Included in the price are 2 shot glasses, personalized framed photo and an interactive ceremony.  They also seem to offer lap dance lessons.

Just a few blocks from this area of great shops and attractions, the streets get a bit sketchier.  Here on Yesler Way, we have the original "Skid Row", so named because the sloped road was the path that logs from Henry Yesler's sawmill came sliding down.  Today the term has come to mean "a rundown, dilapidated urban area with a large, impoverished population" which is still appropriate since several homeless shelters can be found here.

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